I am deeply interested in the concept of “play.” I think it is important as a practical matter for children and adults to engage in play; and I think it is key for understanding different aspects our lives. It also connects in obvious and important ways to one of my main research focuses: the philosophy of sport. Ever since getting interested in the philosophy of sport, I’ve wanted to read Johan Huizinga’s classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.
It is a fascinating book; wide-ranging, almost epic in what it attempts to cover. Huizinga attempts to elucidate the different elements and qualities of play in civilization and culture. He sees civilization and culture as at once emerging from a kind of play and as being a kind of play. He says: “genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization” (5) and “[civilization] arises in and as play, and never leaves it” (173).
So what is play? Huizinga does not provide a clear, simple to state definition. He does provide several essential characteristics of play. One, it is a voluntary activity; it is a kind of freedom. It has a dual sense of freedom: it is something freely engaged in and something that is an expression of one’s freedom.
Two, it is outside the ordinary life. It is a kind of step into another world with its own rules and boundaries. My favorite example that Huizinga uses for this is the notion of a playground. He compares this to the sacred grounds or spaces of religions. A space, in all other ways similar to other spaces, marked out for a specific and special purpose.
Third, play has its own space, and also its own time. Play runs its course: it has a beginning and an end. For many games and play, this time is not parallel to “real” time (think of how long two minutes in football takes to play).
Fourth, play, through its rules, creates an order. For much play, the rules and the order they create are absolute. To break the rules is to destroy the order and the play. Lastly, it is connected to social and community groups that engage in the play.
The features of special and separate space, time, and order create a paradox about play. Play is, because it is outside of ordinary life, not serious. Play, as it is conceived by Huizinga, is not engaged in to gain the values that one needs for life (it has its own internal ends). At the same time, play is not mere frivolity. It has to be taken seriously by the player. Within the game, the rules and the play are absorbing and near absolute. Outside of the game, these are arbitrary and even meaningless. It is this paradox, I think, that makes play so fascinating to think about.
Huizinga’s first chapter digs into this paradox of play and seriousness, and he returns to it throughout the book. The middle chapters of the book are sweeping discussions of the different elements of play in different parts of civilization and culture (ritual, religion, philosophy, language, art, etc.). These are for the most engrossing and fun (sort of like play itself?). I cannot attest to the accuracy of his claims and accounts, and given their sweeping presentation I am sure there is some simplification going on, but it is worthwhile even if he may be somewhat inaccurate because it helps clarify the elements of play that he sees operating in culture.
The last two chapters look at the modern world. Huizinga has some biting criticisms of the way modern culture has lost or perverted the sense of play. It is here he begins to address issues with direct relevance to the philosophy of sport. He sees contemporary sport as having lost much of the play-spirit that he thinks is so important to culture. It is, he claims, neither something completely seriously, nor is it play: it has become something of its own category. He also doesn’t think that sport of today is a “culture-creating activity” (198). I think there is some truth in his criticisms here, but I am not sure I would go as far as Huizinga. In part, the phenomenon of contemporary sport is still something very new in human culture. What its effects are and will be is still being discovered.
I think this book is, for those interested in play, culture, or sport, an important work. I fear, nevertheless, that Huizinga is too far-reaching in thesis and sees play nearly everywhere. He recognizes this potential fault and tries to avoid it, but I am not sure he does. To the extent that he is identifying elements of play that are a part of the features of culture and civilization, I think his thesis is better supported. But to the extent that he is trying to make the case that civilization is itself a kind of play, I think his argument falters.